Judge overturns Jordan Azzopardi's sentence for brutal 2015 assault, orders re-sentencing

The wrong date on a judgment handed down by a magistrate sees Jordan Azzopardi’s seven-month jail term quashed as judge orders re-sentencing

Jordan Azzopardi
Jordan Azzopardi

A seven-month prison sentence handed to Jordan Azzopardi over a 2015 assault which left another man with broken bones has been rescinded on technical grounds.

Mr Justice Neville Camilleri on appeal sent the case back to the Court of Magistrates for resentencing.

Azzopardi’s name became a byword for the illegal drug trade in Malta, after his arrest in 2019 on charges of masterminding a sophisticated nationwide drug distribution network.

The 34-year-old Azzopardi was the kingpin of a ring that trafficked heroin, cocaine and cannabis. But his problems with the law reach back years before that.

In 2015, Azzopardi was charged, together with an unnamed accomplice, with grievously injuring a man and threatening his female companion, breaching the peace and recidivism, amongst other offences.

Despite initially contesting the charges, Azzopardi had eventually pleaded guilty in December 2020, 33 sittings into the case and three years after the prosecution had finished exhibiting its evidence. He was sentenced to imprisonment for seven months and a three-year restraining order issued in favour of the victims.

When sentencing Azzopardi, Magistrate Nadine Lia had noted that the case was not a simple fight between two friends which had escalated out of control, but was a “premeditated and planned attack” on a person who was sought out and beaten up in the street in public view, with such ferocity that he ended up naked in the street.

The magistrate observed that there had also been an attempt to drag the victim into Azzopardi’s car to be beaten further, but he had managed to escape. The victim suffered broken bones and had to spend a period of time recovering in hospital as a result.

Azzopardi’s lawyers Franco Debono, Marion Camilleri and Charles Mercieca, had subsequently filed an appeal on behalf of their client. Amongst the grounds on which the appeal was based was a clerical error about the date on which the original judgment was handed down.

The judgment in question began with the phrase ‘Today, 15 December 2021’ and ended with ‘Handed down, today 30 November 2021, in the Courts of Justice, Valletta’.

Mr Justice Neville Camilleri, deciding the appeal, observed that case law had established that not every imprecision or irregularity in a judgment by the Court of Magistrates leads to its nullity, but noted that the Criminal Code listed the required formalities which had to be scrupulously observed in every judgment, the absence of which would lead to nullity.

“This scrupulousness in observing these requisites is not simple formalism, but is based on the necessity that the judgment by the Court of Magistrates is clear and creates no uncertainty in the mind of the accused with regards to the declaration of guilt in his regard.”

Although the precise indication of the date of sentencing is not one of the requirements listed in the law, the courts had interpreted it as an indispensable detail for the validity of the judgment.

“The date of the judgment is not excess formalism, but an essential part of the substance of the sentence, in that it provides certainty of when judgment was given,” the judge said, explaining that it was essential to establish the timeframe within which an appeal could be filed, as well as acting as a point of departure for the defendant’s punishment.

The copy of the judgment exhibited in the proceedings featured a correction made by the magistrate’s deputy registrar after the mistake was noted. The court official had testified to having added the correction, changing the date from 13 January 2022 to 31 January 2022 herself, but was unable to remember whether she had corrected the sentence before or after judgment was given. She had told the court that it was possible the judgment had been entered in the electronic repository twice after Azzopardi’s lawyer had noticed it and therefore after the appeal had already been filed.

Citing case law, the judge ruled that such a mistake could never be taken as a minor or inconsequential one and ordered the defendant be placed in the position he was in immediately before the judgment was issued.

Azzopardi’s sentence was therefore revoked and the case sent back to the Court of Magistrates for re-sentencing.